Parallels between yoga and science

Several months ago I completed a 35-hour yoga teacher training class. In the course of that training, and in the months following as I tried to maintain my yoga practice while finishing my doctoral dissertation, I found that several of the core yoga principles were translatable to my scientific process. By applying those translatable principles to my daily scientific life, I felt more productive and focused. So I want to outline the principles and my application of them to my life as a grad student here.

Follow your instincts. This is the number one lesson from my yoga teacher: a guided-from-within life. In a yoga class, this means that you should listen to your body and do what feels natural rather than force yourself into an uncomfortable or painful pose. If it’s a free-form class, being guided-from-within means that you flow through the poses in a natural way without thinking too hard about the sequence. In my life as a graduate student, I applied the guided-from-within approach to which project I wanted to work on in each moment. I always have a long list of things to do, so to apply this principle I choose to work on the one that I feel the most into at the moment. Sometimes I don’t feel like reading a paper but would rather work on an analysis and create a figure. When that no longer feels right, I’ll switch to reading the paper, or maybe working on writing up a manuscript. By following my instincts, I increased my productivity by not feeling as forced to do my work. And as long as I get started on a project well ahead of the deadline, this approach doesn’t compromise my ability to turn things in on time. Of course, there will always be some tasks that are always unappealing (I’m looking at you, animal care and use protocols) and some deadlines that must be rushed towards. But on the whole, the guided-from-within yoga mentality can be really useful for improving productivity as a scientist/grad student.

Be in the moment. In yoga class, we’re encouraged to set aside our to-do lists and focus on feeling the movements. This principle holds up for researchers as well. Once I’ve chosen a task to work on, if I apply this yoga principle to my work I set aside facebook, emails, and my to-do list to simply focus on the one task in front of me. It sounds easy, but it can be quite challenging, especially if the task is reading a rather dry paper. But focusing on a single task really improves my productivity.

Meditation. Yoga is really all about meditation. Meditation involves clearing the mind of all the mundane, day-to-day things and refocusing the brain. I like to think about meditation as listening to my subconscious, although each person has a different way to describe it. Meditation can be an incredibly powerful tool for a busy scientist, because we’ve always got so many projects at different stages (project ideas, experiments currently running, analyses we’re working on, and papers we’re writing) that it is easy to lose track of yourself in all the madness. Sitting and meditating for a few minutes reconnects me with why I got into all the crazy projects in the first place and leaves me feeling more centered, more grounded, and less likely to become a mad scientist.

Practice the mindset at a small scale. My yoga instructor talks about the actual yoga practice (all the poses we do on the mat) as a way to practice the yoga mindset (being in the meditative, guided-from-within, in-the-moment, connected-to-the-subconscious mindset) in an easy place. Does it feel good to have my arm that way? No? Then I’ll move it. It’s an easy way of listening to yourself and a safe and relatively easy place to practice that yoga mindset. I like to think about science in a similar way. For me, the best example is when I’m reading a scientific paper. I can just read the paper and take in all the words. That would be the equivalent of just going through the motions in yoga class. Alternatively, I can read the paper in a scientific way, and practice thinking critically, asking questions, and really evaluating the paper. Reading a paper is an easy place to practice the scientific approach, but it’s the approach I want to have for all of my scientific endeavors. I should approach my own experiments and writing with the same critical thinking and questioning approach as reading a paper. So just like yoga, there are ways to practice the appropriate mindset so that it becomes easier to slip into it and utilize the skills built in that easy space.

Sometimes we need the positive energy of a safe space. You can practice yoga alone or with other people. The two settings, alone or surrounded by people, result in very different energies. Sometimes what you really want and need from a yoga practice is the energy of other people doing yoga alongside you, even though it’s an independent practice and you don’t really interact much. The energy of having other people doing a similar thing in a safe space is incredibly therapeutic. Similarly, you can work alone at home/office or you can work in a crowded coffee shop/lab. Sometimes I want to work alone, holed up without any company to really focus on my work. Other times, I crave the company of others similarly slaving away on a grant proposal or paper—and that’s when it’s best to find a safe space like a coffee shop or a writing group or even just my shared lab/office space to work in.

Everything has multiple dimensions. Yoga comes in five types: Hatha yoga (movement of the body), Jnana yoga (knowledge and study), Bhakti yoga (love and creativity), Karma yoga (charity), and Raja yoga (meditation). A true yogi will be balanced in the practice of all five of these yogic schools. I believe that it’s important to balance these five aspects as a person, but especially as a scientist who is expected to be incredibly dedicated to the job. Being a scientist means that our lives are mostly guided by the Jnana yoga school of thought. However, I think it’s important that we don’t forget to be active (because activity leads to longer and healthier lives), to reconnect with ourselves (meditation), or to give back to the community (charity). Importantly, I think it’s incredibly important to remain connected to the creative and artistic aspects of ourselves. Coming up with our new ideas requires a lot of creativity, and I personally think it’s important to cultivate my creativity in my hobbies, which primarily involve reading fantasy novels and crafting. Finding a balance between these five aspects helps enrich my life and also helps enhance my scientific practice.

I try to apply these lessons from my yoga training to my life as a graduate student (soon-to-be-postdoc!). They help me stay grounded and happy while improving my productivity. What do you think? Do you have other ways of staying productive?